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MSW student works to raise awareness around gender and sexual violence

If Natalie Ziemba never had considered an acting career, it’s possible she never would have discovered social work. But thanks to a high school production that touched on gender stereotypes and gender violence, Ziemba, now a 2nd-year MSW student, found her true calling.

“What was interesting at the time was the more I performed that show, the more I realized that (gender equality) was such an important issue, and it was something that I thought people needed to focus on,” she said.

Ziemba took her own passion for the issue to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she earned a degree in women’s and gender studies. Shortly after graduation, she joined the Peace Corps and for more than two years, taught English at a primary school in Samoa in the South Pacific. The experience taught her a lot about building relationships across difference.

Although she ultimately longed to work for a nonprofit, she eventually realized most of the people in positions she admired all had one thing in common: they had MSW degrees. “And I was like, ‘Hmmm, this might be helpful for the future,’” she said, laughing.

Since enrolling in UNC’s MSW program in 2013, Ziemba has committed her time and energy to her coursework and to volunteering as much as possible with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center. Over the past year, she has trained as a “Companion,” a frontline counselor who responds to the center’s 24-hour hotline and provides support to survivors of sexual assault, their loved ones and professionals.

As part of her field placement this year, she also is interning with the residential shelter at InterAct of Wake County, a nonprofit that provides safety, support, and awareness to victims and survivors of domestic violence and rape/sexual assault. Ziemba, who is helping to connect clients to needed services, doesn’t plan to make a career out of direct practice. But she still jumped at the chance to work one-on-one with the shelter residents.

“Actually I think for anything you do in social work, you need both micro and macro skills,” she said. “So I wanted to get more experience, especially working with groups because that’s a really big paradigm in violence work.”

Ziemba’s commitment to fighting for equal opportunity for women and girls is one of the reasons she received the Jane Curtis Parker Scholarship this year. Established by the family and friends of Parker, a 1954 School alumna, the award is given to rising second-year students who demonstrate compassion, courage, and inspiration, all qualities that Parker embraced in her professional life.

Ziemba’s “dedication and tireless service to people and social work,” are proof that she lives by the example that Parker set, noted Caitlin Georgas with the Orange County Adolescent Parenting Program. Georgas nominated Ziemba for the award and supervised the social work student last year as part of her field placement with the agency, which serves pregnant and parenting teens under 18.

Ziemba is grateful for Georgas’ support and mentorship and for the financial assistance. But she also appreciates the “sense of acknowledgement.”

“It feels very validating that the things that I’ve done in the past and the things that continue to inspire me to do social work—that other people recognize the importance of the work and that they support the effort.”

Ziemba will graduate in May and although she still isn’t quite sure where she will land, she’s confident that her background in social work will help her find a place where she can promote effective programs focused on ending gender violence and changing rape culture.

“Social work really has sharpened my understanding of the issue, and it gives me the skills and the framework to look at gender violence from the direct perspective to see what the impact is on the individual and then from the macro perspective and to see what are the policies and norms that are creating these situations,” she said. “So social work really has helped me to better articulate what the problem is and how we can respond to it.”

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